Review of Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity

In this crazy modern era of politicized writing, wherein fiction books are vetted by committees applying litmus tests for cultural sensitivity, appropriation, representation, I found myself craving a simpler time of storytelling.

This is not to say that those other things –the sensitivity, the historical accuracy, the acknowledgement of an historic over-reliance on Westernness, maleness, whiteness, American-ness, and other kinds of “ness”– aren’t important. Of course they are. It’s just all so…. tiring.

So where do I go for a bit of a tonic? Where to find some narrative, some fiction, some old-school storytelling that innocently is unaware of its social responsibilities?

Why, we go to science fiction’s golden age, of course.

And that’s what brought me to Hal Clement’s puerile adventure classic, Mission of Gravity.


Originally serialized in 1953 in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (which later became Analog), the tale was published in book form the following year.  Decades later, it was awarded a Retro Hugo, for excellence in SF’s pioneering era.

Mission of Gravity is an archetypal example of what the kids call “hard science fiction”, a subgenre in which the characters within the SF story solve physical problems with physical –largely technological– means. The science tends to be solid, even the speculative science, and the rules are intensely consistent within the boundaries of the story.

I like to think of hard SF as storytelling by autistic engineers. Very often, annoying distractions like social dynamics, emotions, and character are ignored in favour of the overarching goal of, you know, telling the damned story.

All too often, the hard SF style also ignores pesky annoyances like, you know, women, racial minorities, and any science that isn’t physics or engineering.  Biological sciences are woefully represented in the classic hard SF genre.

In other words, if a hard SF novel of the 1950s were to be presented by a legitimate publisher today, the launch would be protested and its author beheaded on social media.

All right then. With that out of the way, what is the deal with Mission of Gravity? Hal Clement, born Harry Clement Stubbs, had degrees in Astronomy, Chemistry and Education, making him an ideal hard SF author. Mission introduces us to the planet Mesklin, whose inhabitants would re-appear in the book’s sequel, Star Light, as well as in a couple of short stories.

 

The hard SF premise is basic: what if there was a planet that has crazy high gravity in some parts, and less gravity elsewhere? What kinds of creatures would evolve there, and what challenges would they face? This is the essence of hard SF, to propose a technically challenging premise, then to follow that premise to its logical implications and likely solutions.

The plot is simple. Humans have sent a probe to the planet Mesklin, which is huge and which spins really really fast. As a result of its extreme conditions, Mesklin has gravty 700 times that of Earth near its poles, but only three times near the equator.

The probe is intended to study gravity, and its data would move our knowledge of gravitational physics well past Einstein, as one of the characters asserts. Of course, the probe malfunctions and the humans are unable to retrieve its data, given that no human or human-made machine could survive the oppressive polar gravity.

The solution is to recruit a team of local Mesklinites, the crew of a trading raft captained by a shrewd individual named Barlennan. The Mesklin seas are made of methane and hydrogen, and Mesklinite technology is somewhat stone-age. Part of the fun of the story is seeing how the Mesklinites react to space-age knowledge and technologies given to them by the humans. The other part of the fun is learning about how the Mesklinites navigate their environment and interact with their own local cultures. Given the level of local technology, it is clear that Barlennan and his crew are as ignorant of much of their world as the humans are.

The hard SF shortcomings are glaring to a reader in the 21st century. All the characters are male. In fact, there is no thought given to the presence or role of females at all. The humans all have American Anglo-Saxon names, though purport to represent a wide array of different human-inhabited worlds. And while some attempt is made to describe the biology of Mesklin, it is laughable to anyone with more than a high school level education in biology. For example, Clement is not aware that a biosphere is made up of more than just plants and animals, and is thus a proper representative of the mainstream popular science thinking of his time.

Most glaring is his depiction of the psychology of Mesklinites. While their bodies are described with great engineering aplomb and creativity –lobster/caterpillar-like bodies, needed to withstand high gravity– their minds and ways of thinking are demonstrably human and modern. A contemporary telling of this story would no doubt go to great lengths to depict a truly alien psychology, especially one that evolved in an environment so unlike that of Earth’s.

But the seeds are there for a truly innovative alien experience. The central vanity of the story is an aspect of Mesklinite psychology that manifests from a simplistic appreciation of the planet’s high gravity. For creatures living in its high latitude, where gravity is impossibly high, a fall of a a few centimetres is fatal. Therefore, such creatures have evolved a terror of things above their heads, of leaving the ground, and of throwing things. And flight? Flight is not a thing even possible in imagination.

Mission of Gravity is a wonderful, accessible and easily digested package of hard SF. It is not for the science fiction novice, however, or even for a science fiction regular who is nevertheless ignorant of the basics of gravitational physics.

Clement lays upon the reader the responsibility to catch up quickly, as the tale begins with the “mission” already underway, species having met, relationships already forged. It’s like entering into a conversation midway, but more challenging, since not only subject and status must be gleaned from context, but also the physical realities of the environment.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this very short book. It ended unexpectedly, but joyfully. And I find myself thinking still about its very pleasant final sentence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

nineteen + 18 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.